Notre Dame Football's Top 25 Most Important Players For 2021, No. 9: Wide Receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
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Notre Dame’s Top 25 Most Important Players, No. 9: Kevin Austin

Throughout July, BlueandGold.com will feature a countdown of the 25 most pivotal figures counted on to help lead Notre Dame back to the College Football Playoff in 2021.

This is not necessarily about who is the best player or the top pro prospect. It’s more along the lines of individuals that need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to help Irish reach that goal.

Much is based on talent and impact, but a premium is also placed on these questions: 1) If you subtracted this individual from the roster, how much of a setback would it be? 2) If this less proven player emerges and makes an impact, how much does that raise the ceiling (or lower it, if a breakout does not happen as expected)?

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
Austin has played in two games since 2019, but remains a big part of Notre Dame’s 2021 plans. (Mike Miller)

The players and their rankings were determined by vote from five BlueandGold.com staff members.

Next in the countdown is senior wide receiver Kevin Austin, who collected 82 points in our poll.

Why Austin Is Ranked No. 9

A senior with six career catches and two games played the last two seasons does not often find himself at the center of an offense’s plans.

But here’s Austin, a much-discussed yet mystery-cloaked senior who Notre Dame still believes can add explosiveness to its offense.

The 6-2, 215-pound Austin was unofficially suspended for all of 2019. A pair of foot fractures wrecked a potential 2020 breakout. Yet hopes are still high.

“He has the physically ability to dominate the person in front of him,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees told BlueandGold.com. “He has size, he’s strong, he can run. When you put those things together, you have a dangerous weapon. His ability to win 50/50 plays, his ability to create and separate, if you can get him in space, he can explode to the second and third level.”

Added head coach Brian Kelly: “He’s long, he’s physical. He has all the tools of the great receivers that we’ve had, from Michael Floyd to Miles Boykin. Certainly, he has Chase Claypool traits. This is about an opportunity that hasn’t presented itself to him. We’ve seen him enough and our players have seen him enough.”

No player may fit the “if he emerges, the ceiling goes way up” category of our rankings more than Austin, a former top-100 recruit from South Florida. If he’s healthy, Notre Dame’s offense is in business. If not, it’s hard at this point to sell an appreciable, difference-making bump in pass-game explosion.

It’s not an ideal place for a receiving corps to be. Slot receiver Avery Davis’ 39 career catches are the most of anyone in the group. Aside from Davis, it’s a cadre of seniors hoping to be late bloomers and underclassmen who have barely played (if at all).

If Austin is as advertised, though, concerns about the group will wane. There’s optimism he will be, but until he does it on the field, it’s best to be cautious with that sentiment.

Austin’s Status Entering The Season

Rees and Kelly said Austin’s re-introduction into the offense will be gradual. Notre Dame won’t throw him into the entire playbook and a full day of work when it opens camp next month.

Like carrying a filled-to-the-brim bowl of soup, it’s best to proceed with care and move slowly. But the hope is the build-up will be complete well in advance of the Sept. 5 opener at Florida State.

Austin’s first foot fracture occurred early in training camp. A season-ending bone graft procedure was an option, but Austin wanted to come back without it. He returned for the Oct. 10 meeting with Florida State, played in two games (25 total snaps) and re-broke his foot before an Oct. 24 trip to Pittsburgh.

That game was the target date for expanding his role. Instead, he had the graft and missed the rest of the year. He did not participate in padded spring practice. He has returned for summer conditioning workouts.

What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?

This should go without saying, but remaining healthy is objective No. 1. Success starts there. Austin was in this exact spot a year ago – primed to take over for Claypool at boundary receiver (and No. 12 in our 2020 most important players rankings) before injuries sideswiped those plans.

If he does, and if the tales of his dominance in practice are true, a season with at least 50 catches and 800 yards should be within reach. He could be capable of much more.

Most of the public glimpses of Austin’s skills came in 2018, when he caught five passes for 90 yards as a freshman. He had 38 of those on a catch against Navy. His only other career reception was an 18-yard catch-and-run last year against Louisville. It’s enough fuel for palpable buzz and enough unknowns to encourage measured expectations.

“There have been snippets,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t done it over a long period of time, but we’re not unrealistic in our expectations. We know it will take some time, but we know that talent he has.”

Behind The Ranking

The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press top 25. Five BlueandGold.com staff members submitted their ballots, and each position on the ballot was given a point value. The top ranking was worth 25 points, No. 2 was worth 24, No. 3 worth 23 and so on down until No. 25, which was worth one point. The players with the 25 highest point totals made the list.

Individual rankings

Patrick Engel: 7

Tyler Horka: 15

Mike Singer: 8

Todd Burlage: 8

Steve Downey: 10

Prior Top 25 Rankings

No. 25: Jonathan Doerer

No. 24: Marist Liufau

No. 23: Drew Pyne

No. 22: Braden Lenzy

No. 21: Jayson Ademilola

No. 20: Chris Tyree

No. 19: Avery Davis

No. 18: Josh Lugg

No. 17: Houston Griffith

No. 16: Cam Hart

No. 15: Zeke Correll

No. 14: Blake Fisher

No. 13: Kurt Hinish

No. 12: Jack Kiser

No. 11: Drew White

No. 10: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa

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